From the first press conference—one Pat Riley called "an innocent beginning" while gushing about a 21-year-old's maturity, defensive mentality and ability to finish games—South Florida fell deeply in love with Dwyane Wade, and it has been smitten ever since.
As Wade became the Heat, the Heat eventually became South Florida's team, passing the scuffling Miami Dolphins in popularity while even earning the courtside support of a certain celebrated passer whose exit from the sporting scene had set the stage for Wade to become South Florida's signature star.
Now, suddenly, stunningly, Wade, like Dan Marino, might have played his last game for his only team.
And if he has, if he heads elsewhere because he can't come to contract terms with the Heat, it would be worse.
Much worse in terms of the emotional impact and the impact on a team's brand. That brand has been by far the best in the area and among the best in sports since Riley took over two decades ago.
It would be worse than the Dolphins' split with Marino because reasonable fans realized that Marino had little left in 2000, when the team told him he needed to take a backup role, and with his choice to retire, they never had to watch their beloved No. 13 toss touchdowns for another city.
It would be worse than LeBron James bolting back to Cleveland following four straight NBA Finals appearances, all of which with Wade as a key contributor.
It would be worse than any of the dastardly deeds the Marlins have done because, well, they're the Marlins, and everyone expects the worst from them.
Wade's departure would be worse for the community and worse for the organization than all of those.
This simply cannot happen.
The Heat cannot, under any circumstances, let Dwyane Wade leave. At the moment—based on my reporting—that appears at least as likely not to occur when free agency officially opens in July.
This standoff has been on top of the local headlines since May 28, when Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald broke the news that Wade and the Heat were far apart in negotiating the financial terms of their future together.
Technically, there cannot be an official negotiation until July 1 and after Wade decides whether to opt in or out of his $16 million contract for 2015-16. But clearly, it's common for NBA teams to hold some conversations about parameters, and the revelation of dissension has riled up the masses. Championship partners have been coldly reframed as "sides," and each side has vehemently denied leaking the details of their rift.
Those details are murky and more dependent on interpretation than facts should typically be.
The Heat cannot comment publicly or they risk the league's ire for early negotiating. Still, they have shot down any insinuations that they promised Wade a payoff this offseason for providing flexibility, and giving up $11 million over two years, in his last contract. That payoff, to offset what Wade gave up in 2014-15 alone, could essentially amount to a one-year contract of up to $23.5 million for 2015-16, with Wade then taking smaller salaries for 2016-17 and 2017-18 to accommodate Riley's planned pursuit of free agents.
But through conversations with Wade associates, it's apparent the 12-year veteran had the impression the Heat were prepared to do something quite like that, but the calculus changed with the trade-deadline acquisition of Goran Dragic.
The Heat also dispute any suggestion that, when faced with the prospect of Wade opting out now—something they would prefer he not do—they intended to offer less than $10 million per season on a three-year deal, terms that would strike most impartial observers as inadequate, even insulting, considering the still-strong state of Wade's game. Yet since those are the numbers that some Wade associates are citing, there seems to be, at the least, a misunderstanding on that topic as well.
What's leverage, and what's truth?
What's manipulation, and what's just confusion?
That's difficult to determine, almost as challenging as executing an agreement palatable to all parties—one that isn't a "Kobe Bryant" lifetime achievement award but also accounts for what Wade has meant, and continues to mean, on the court and in the community. That agreement can still be achieved even if the Heat may now need to bend more since something they did made Wade feel unappreciated and even betrayed. That second feeling, justified or not, is the most pernicious problem because without that trust, the workable solutions decrease.
The Heat need Wade to make one more leap for them...this time, a leap of faith.
But at this point, it's become obvious that he wants and needs them to do some leaping first.
It sounds unlikely at this stage that Wade will forgo security and please the Heat by opting into his one-year, $16 million deal since that would require him to trust the Heat to take care of him in 2016. The Heat can point to previous generosity, such as when they gave the perennially underpaid Tim Hardaway a balloon payment near the end, but Wade might be past the point of hearing that.
So this may require Heat owner Micky Arison to, at the least, give Wade roughly $23 million for just next season while making him a free agent after even though executing that deal would likely make the Heat a repeater tax team and trigger an extremely expensive luxury tax bill. Even then, for Wade to agree, he would still need to trust Miami to give him something in 2016, when Riley will be trying to squeeze Hassan Whiteside under the salary cap while pursuing major stars. But the maximum cash might buy Wade more piece of mind.
Are Wade's trust concerns valid? The Heat would surely argue otherwise based on their track record of stability (the organization is populated with long-timers). But in a situation like this, the perception alone can be a problem. And the Heat have made some moves in the past two years, whether the amnesty of Mike Miller or the trade of Joel Anthony, that other players (some still around, and some long gone) saw as salary dumps while the front office justified them on other grounds.
Are the Heat's trust issues with Wade valid? They worry that after missing 48 games the past two seasons, he may struggle even more to remain available over a prospective three-year contract. Perhaps so, but that's impossible to predict. He proved last season he can still be highly productive when healthy, and he has embraced the Heat's call to slim down this summer.
He can't do anything to prove how he'll hold up, not this summer, maybe not even next season.
So the onus is on the organization to prove to Wade that it still values him. That way, the Heat can stave off the worst-case scenario.
That either means paying the high price for 2015-16, incurring that tax bill but preserving some flexibility for the following two seasons, or spreading some of the money out into the future, avoiding the huge tax hit but giving Wade security. The latter option might mean dousing Riley's dreams of building another super team prior to his own retirement.
Which one is preferable?
That's for them to decide and then present to Wade in a way that can work for him and for the team—since he does still want to win.
But Miami needs to find something.
The true devil is not in the details. It would be in the departure.
Sometime prior to the draft, there must be work done toward mending fences and patching partnerships—so that if Wade does opt out, it's not because he's intent on heading out of town. The Heat must fully realize that for all they've done right—so much more than all the other organizations in the market, so much more than many competitors in their sport—they'll never be forgiven by fans if it's perceived that, in any way, they did their signature player wrong.
They must understand that by losing him, they lose not only cache, but credibility as a team that has built its brand on sacrifice, loyalty, continuity and phrases like "Heat Lifer." That term came off as somewhat of a passive-aggressive shot at the jilting James, but it was also meant to underscore the identification fans had with their all-time favorites—those like Wade and Udonis Haslem, who have sacrificed something significant to accommodate the greater good.
That slogan made some in the organization uncomfortable because it can be harder to do basketball business when your hands are tied by an unachievable ideal. But the fans bought in, and so did Wade, who tweeted it upon announcing his return last summer and embodied it as part of the team's uphill post-James marketing push.
But what if the ultimate Heat Lifer continues his NBA existence elsewhere, not after struggling the way that Marino often did near the end, but after a season in which he still proved to be one of the league's better guards, third in the East in scoring?
And what if rather than taking the highest dollar with a rebuilding team like the Lakers or Knicks, he takes much less from the Clippers or Hawks or Mavericks or some other potential contender, making it clear that frustration, not greed, was the motive?
How's that spun?
How's that damage undone?
How can the Heat continue to argue that, as Riley favorite Bruce Springsteen has sung, "We Take Care of Our Own"? Or that there's heft, and not hype, behind the Heat Lifer slogan?
How will the fans receive Dragic, Whiteside or anyone else whose presence is perceived to have been an impediment to Wade's return? Will any of them come close to matching Wade as a draw for a team that still packed the house last season but did so in part on tickets bought prior to James' departure?
How will the fans view the contract of Chris Bosh, who is close with Wade and shares an agent but who was prioritized and paid last summer while Wade waited and gave money up? How will Riley, even with the financial wherewithal in 2016 and even for all his glittering rings and powers of persuasion, convince premier free agents like Kevin Durant to commit long term to a franchise that just lost James and Wade in successive summers?
James can be more easily explained. He had some underpublicized reasons to abandon the Heat's cause, such as family and control, but some of it was truly due to his sentimental desire to go home.
Wade is home. He has been since 2003, when South Florida became his town, AmericanAirlines Arena became his house and Heat fans, even a man named Marino, became his fans. Even if it comes at an uncomfortable cost, the Heat must do what it takes to keep him there.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.